janet armuth wolkoff
FINALIST: How to Lead a Meaningful Personal and Professional Life


 That first Thanksgiving after she had started practicing law again—following a ten year hiatus-- Janet was at the holiday table conversing with a young law student from the University of Pennsylvania. He was agonizing over whether to go into international law or another, equally glamorous specialty. She remembered his dilemma, but then felt so relieved. At the age of 43, she was content simply to get dressed in the morning, drive in a car without passing apple juice cartons back to her twins, arrive at court on time, and advocate on behalf of the clients of the firm she worked for on a per diem basis. Janet's three children were a 12 year old boy and 6 year old twins. Her husband was an executive in New York who worked long and irregular hours.

When she was in her 20's, outsiders undoubtedly looked at Janet as a hotshot lawyer working on Park Avenue; a few years later as a sexy public interest lawyer occasionally in the news. But when Janet herself went home to her Manhattan apartment at night, she often felt lonely and sad. By age 30, Janet got married to another lawyer and two years later they had their first son. It was motherhood which provided Janet with the purpose and fulfillment she had been looking for from a high-powered career.

In the next ten years, Janet gave birth to a stillborn baby girl, followed by the birth of healthy and beautiful boy and girl twins who cried out to be loved, cared for and, most of all, enjoyed. Janet wrote about the grievous experience of the stillbirth. Her writing was published in a literary magazine.

 In those ten precious years, with no job to report to, Janet followed what interested her—something she hadn't done going right from Barnard College to the George Washington University Law School and then to work. She gravitated toward community work that involved public-speaking and grass-roots organizing on behalf of educational issues related to class size and safe bus transportation for elementary school children. Building on success in these areas, she took on, along with other like-minded intellectuals in Maplewood-South Orange, the more highly charged issue of racial steering and illegal discrimination taking place in the housing market of her suburban town during the recession of 1991. Janet wrote about these and other issues for her local newspaper and other publications. With no formal work commitments, Janet also found the time to play the piano, which she loved. Janet felt she was flitting from one endeavor to another and wasn't making any money. Janet thought it might be better to have a job. The fact that she got the job as a per diem lawyer felt like a minor miracle.

Source of Confidence—Growing Up

As a little girl, Janet was very lucky. Whatever she tried, she seemed to be good at and other people admired her and liked her. In elementary school, she was one of the smartest in her class, among a group of very smart children, especially smart boys who later all attended Ivy League colleges. Janet's mother had a college degree and a masters degree from Columbia Teachers College. She knew other mothers who were teachers and even one who was a physician, part-time, a rarity for that era. Devouring biographies, especially of famous women who made a difference in public life, i.e. Jane Addams, Florence Nightingale, Dolly Madison; and novels by female authoresses, i.e., Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Charlotte Bronte, Janet felt that being a girl was a good thing.

Then, as Janet became a teen-ager, boys complicated her life. No longer just friends and competitive playmates, she started to wonder how was it possible, in the 1960s, to be pretty and popular and also smart and ambitious? Once, on career day, she told the editor of her town paper that she wanted to be a journalist. He said, "I wouldn't hire a female." Before Janet graduated from high school, the women's lib movement had come to New Jersey. During one high school assembly, a boy stood up and told the female speaker from Rutgers Law School: "I wouldn't let my wife work." " Who was he? ", Janet thought, to tell his wife whether she could or couldn't work. The early confidence that Janet felt as a child might have suffered some erosion from society's mixed messages, but her confidence was fueled by the defiance she felt at that boy, less talented than she, who thought he could dictate what a girl could or could not do.

Professional Challenge

Back at the suburban law firm, Janet had been working steadily for over a year. She hadn't lost one case or made one mistake. In fact, she figured she was valuable to the firm. So, after working for $50.00 an hour, she thought it was time to make $75.00, the amount she knew some of the other independent contract lawyers made. The paralegal who assigned the work agreed. However, the managing partner didn't. Irate, he called her into his office: "You should be happy you have a job," he said. "You could be a salesgirl in Bloomingdales selling shoes."

The next week, without even consciously deciding whether she wanted to have her own firm or not, she ran an ad in the local paper soliciting business in the areas she was most familiar with--real estate tax appeals and landlord tenant. Then, she went for daytime and sometimes nighttime workshops and conferences given by the N.J. State Bar Association to learn about other general practice topics, e.g. wills, trusts, employment discrimination. This went on for another ten years. Eventually, Janet got a sexual harassment case where she won $75,000. for the grateful plaintiff. Best of all, the foreman of the plaintiff's warehouse was fired after an independent, internal investigation proved he was an inveterate harasser. Janet took on a "slip and fall" case with her daughter's swim coach who was studying to be a court stenographer and had hurt her wrist. She won a fair award for this deserving client, too.

Sure enough, Thanksgiving dinner came around again. The young lawyer from Penn was now working in a fancy Wall Street firm writing briefs and just getting ready to take his first deposition. When I told him I had hung out my shingle, he was incredulous: "How can you do that?, " he asked. "Is it ethical to take cases you have no expertise in?" Now I looked at him incredulously, and spoke: "I can read, I know civil procedure, I had excellent academic and job training in my 20s, and I can work harder than anyone else who has done it before. Plus, if it's too hard, I ask for help."

The success of Janet's general practice was also its demise. Janet found that in order to keep up with the administrative and computer requirements, and to actually enjoy and profit from practicing law, she would have to have a secretary. And, if she had a secretary, she would have to have a commitment to make a certain amount of money. And, then she would have to have more definite hours.....Suddenly, it seemed Janet's children were at an age where they needed parental supervision more than ever. The twins and her college age son were all struggling with academic and social pressures. Her husband had been briefly, but worrisomely, unemployed. Now he was back on Wall Street working in a job that demanded all of his emotional energy, if not all of his physical time. Finally, a major house renovation put Janet over the top. It was impossible to do it all, and it was the law she let go. She didn't decide that overtly. It was more that she stopped talking up her practice when she went to parties or met people, and she didn't advertise. If an occasional client was recommended by someone else, she helped them find another competent lawyer.

Personal Challenge Now

 Janet wants to produce a body of written work and reach a level of mastery that will enable her to communicate with and positively influence a wider group of people than she has so far in her life. Her investment in her husband's career and in her marriage has guaranteed her financial security. She feels she has set her children on a strong and good course-- not only do they have promising futures, but they love and help one another, and are moral individuals.

At the Thanksgiving table Janet is a grateful participant, especially aware of those whose lives or health have been cut short much earlier than her own. But, Janet does not want to lead the rest of her life so that at its end she feels she has not lived up to her potential. Janet has never had a mentor who showed her the way. Janet wishes she could see a clearing ahead instead of probably, as usual, having to bushwhack her way to the clearing. A graduate of Outward Bound, whose motto is "To serve, to strive, and not to yield," Janet will keep on trying to make her life meaningful in the personal and professional arenas. She's had a good start. Now, she has to finish.